The Summer of ’89. Part 2

Give or take it’s about 2900 miles, roughly 44 hours without stops from coast to coast.  We had given ourselves plenty of time for exploring and spontaneity, but our first destination was The 18th Annual Rainbow Gathering, on the Nevada-Idaho Jarbidge quadrangle of the Humboldt National Forest.

Rainbow Gatherings, as explained by Wikipedia, are temporary intentional communities, typically held in outdoor settings, and espousing and practicing ideals of peace, love, harmony, freedom and community, as a consciously expressed alternative to mainstream popular culture, consumerism, capitalism and mass media.  The gatherings are an expression of a Utopian impulse, combined with Bohemianism, hipster and hippie culture, with roots clearly traceable to the counterculture of the 1960s.  The original Rainbow Gathering was in 1972, and has been held annually in the United States from July 1 through 7 every year on National Forest land. Throughout the year, regional and international gatherings are held in the United States and throughout the rest of the world respectively.

By the time we hit Utah, there were droves of brightly painted VW and school busses, all heading in the same direction.  Everyone was honking and waving on the highway, flashing peace signs.  The love, excitement and energy was palpable.  We met some really cool people in Salt Lake who let us stay the night at their place before we finished the last leg of the drive in the morning.   Our old VW bus was devoid of any air conditioning, and was prone to overheating so we were to leave at the break of dawn under cooler temperatures to cross the desert into the gathering.  Being hippies, we spent the evening getting acquainted with our new rainbow brothers over numerous bong hits, in a massage circle, of course.


My luxury Utah crash pad.

As the sun crept up, transforming the mountains into glowing heaps of orange light, we said our goodbyes and got back on the road.   The remainder of the trip was mainly twisting, narrow mountain roads.  We were now part of the herd; this must have been what it looked like driving into Woodstock.

Many hours later, we arrived in the early afternoon and pulled in to park at the top of the mountain amongst the thousands of other cars, vans and busses.  The smell of sagebrush and marijuana was thick in the hot desert air.  We strapped on our packs and began the trek.

“Welcome home, Sister.” A young topless woman with long brown hair smiled genuinely at me as she climbed up the same steep dirt road that I was descending.  I grinned back as my newfound “sister” hugged me. I was, in fact, giddily overjoyed to be here, being welcomed to a “home” I had never known, among “family” I had never met.  I continued down the serpentine footpath, leaning forward under the weight of the 40-pound backpack that held my tent, sleeping bag, flashlight, biodegradable soap, toilet paper and other items I’d be needing.

On this last afternoon in June, the hot dust was filling my nostrils.  Although it was about 98 degrees, snow glistened on the peak before me.  The valley where we were heading was three and a half miles down from the canyon’s rim.  The Shoshone tribes that once held this land never lived upon it, they revered these rocky promontories and sagebrush-covered desert slopes as a sanctuary where they would meet only for special ceremonies.

Here I was, an 18-year-old girl, following the same ancient practice, along with some 7,500 other celebrants filling the canyon during the first week of July.  My Rainbow brothers and sisters included activists for peace, the environment, the rights of animals and the legalization of marijuana; mystics, poets, artists, storytellers, musicians and dancers; Native Americans and students of tribal culture; dreadlocked Rastafarians, bald Hare Krishna’s and Mohawked-and-tattooed motorcyclists; 1960s political radicals; 1980s homeless families; “back-to-the-landers”; Deadheads carrying on the legacy of the Woodstock generation; ideological nudists; holistic and alternative healers – members of the counterculture of every stripe and pattern. At the time, I just identified them as hippies.


I kept my shirt on, just for you.

During that week at the Rainbow Gathering, I lived a freedom I can’t imagine having anywhere else. Sometimes that freedom meant diving naked to swim in an icy river. Or jumping into a mud puddle and dancing around covered with muck.  Sometimes I was awe-struck, in the solitude of my tent, by the sight of the ridge before me turning golden in the first morning light, or of the millions of western stars sparkling in the night sky as I never see them at home. The desert climate was extreme. During the day the temperature would climb into the 100’s, but at night it would be so cold that after passing countless joints around blazing campfires, we would go to our tents layered in thick wool sweaters, shivering in our sleeping bags, then within an hour of sunrise, we would awake in pools of sweat.


Dirty stoned sweaty ass hippie.

My head and body tingled to newly awakened senses as I fell asleep and awoke to the rhythm of drums, drank sweet spring water to the piping of flutes and the strum of guitars, walked to meals to the blowing of a conch shell. The feel of hot sun, frigid river, fresh desert winds, and warm hugs of so many people living not by rote or rules, but by life routes they mapped out themselves.


Dinner bell.

Rob, our friend from back home, was meeting us there a few days later, which meant we would have to hike back up to meet him.  We had previously set a date and time to meet him before we arrived, this was before cell phones and the nearest pay phone was at least a few hours away.  When we had first arrived at the gathering, we were just a trio of self conscious girls clad in jean cut-offs and tank-tops, feeling slightly awkward and inhibited around all of the accepted nudity.  It was something we had never witnessed before.  I was so self-conscious. I remember the first time I emerged from my tent, wearing nothing but a pair of old cut-offs and a few crystals tied to thick cords of leather around my neck, and no one noticed or cared, somehow you drew more attention when clothed. It felt incredible, it was so hot, and there was something deeply liberating about it. But when we all hiked back up to greet Rob at the top of the mountain, topless, his jaw hit the ground.  It was pretty funny.  Everyone there was naked, there was no sexualization about it.  But here’s this guy from home whom we’ve known for years, seeing these three girls topless for the first time, in public on top of a mountain.  It was weird for about 30 seconds, then no one gave it a second thought.


Our new friend Steve on the left, Rob on the right. This is how we rolled to dinner.

Money had no survival value here. Nothing is sold at Rainbow gatherings; the only time you see cash is when the “Magic Hat” is passed around for contributions.  Everything worked on a barter system.  Sometimes it meant doing communal work that I chose freely and performed happily with other Rainbows. I was of the Family as I scrubbed greasy pots for one of the communal kitchens that were feeding thousands of us for free, or stirred a cauldron of beans over a wood fire.  I carried my spoon and although I brought in no food, I was always fed, always loved, and always happy.

“It’s the Rainbow way.” I was to experience “the Rainbow way” dozens of times every day – when campers would share their food, their water, their tools, their medicine with complete strangers; when I would be struggling with a heavy load and suddenly feel someone taking it for me; when I heard a man say to a woman who had lost her sweater, “I have a very special sweater that means a lot to me – I want to give it to you”.

In the July Fourth Peace Circle, the week’s crowning ceremony, thousands of us spent an hour or so arranging ourselves into a circle to be ready for the world peace prayer at high noon. It was unlike anything I have ever felt or seen to this day. A chain of people holding on to one another, stretched out so far that the people on the other side were as small as ants. Once arranged, we prayed together in silence for world peace. Then after, our chanted “Ommmmm” swelled until it bounced off the canyon walls, escalated into a howl and then quieted, we locked arms and sang the old words, “All we are saying is ‘Give peace a chance.'”


4th of July, the makings of the circle.

It was over 100 degrees, the sun was beating down and my head was swimming, I felt like I had a current running through me, and it was so intense that I actually passed out.  All I remember is coming to under a shady tent with women placing cool tea bags on my face and wrists, smiling faces comforting me.

The next few days involved a collaborative cleanup in order to leave the land exactly the way we had found it. Contact information was shared, plans to meet up on the road were put in place with friends we had made, and on the last day, we packed up our tents, all of our belongings, and began the trek back up the mountain.

It had been 10 days since we had seen any remote sign of civilization. Not a car, not the glow of lights from a distant town or city, running water, electricity, toilets, nothing. The only bathing that took place was when you were finally so caked with dust and desert dirt that you took the plunge into the icy, and I mean icy river. I had one of the best experiences of my life at that gathering, but there was one thing on the other side that was calling my name, and that was a hot shower.

41 replies

  1. Awesome, the pictures are great… brings back a lot of great memories. What a blast this trip was (even if you and I argued the entire time)

  2. You have such a talent to be able to write the way you do. Amazing what we learn about a friends talent years later (and a good story too!!) Your boys really resemble you based on these pics.

  3. I loved this. The pictures are great and hearing a story from a participant makes me have a clearer understanding. It sounds like a really free and wonderful experience.

  4. So awesome. Both parts. It’s what I would call, Power Prose. The whole thing reminded me of that commune scene from Easy Rider.

    One question about this: “The 18th Annual Rainbow Gathering, on the Nevada-Idaho Jarbidge quadrangle of the Humboldt National Forest.”

    Did you make that shit up? You made that shit up, didn’t you…

  5. I really enjoyed this 2 part piece Tracy. Simple, straight forward prose, with a compelling story. It sounds transformative, at such an early age. Interesting to think about the impact , and how this melds with other things/stories you’ve shared. Different style here, and I like it. Nice work!

  6. It was truly an amazing adventure! Thank you so much for writing about it, and posting some pics 🙂 Even though I really enjoyed smoking marijuana, I wish I had realized, back then, just how much it effects my ability to remember (or, rather – not remember) experiences I have under the influence. My recollection of the whole trip is sort of like an impressionist painting… with bits and pieces that stand out in the overall blur.

    I really appreciated, and somewhat envied your outgoing, more extraverted personality. There was so much going on inside of me – such profound experiences… I was thankful for your and Britta’s ability to connect with others.

    Not sure if you realize that I continued to go to National Rainbow Gatherings nearly every summer through ’95… (I missed ’93). They were all great, but none really compare to this, the first one – that popped our “Welcome Home” cherry 😉

    • Katie!
      Yes, it was amazing indeed. Between the massive quantities of marijuana and lsd I sprained my brain trying to put the pieces back together. I spoke to Rob for an hour lastnight trying to reconstruct the timeline for that year, needless to say there are big black fuzzy holes punched all over the place.
      Your equating it to an impressionist painting is perfect, it’s like an impressionist painting, under water, on acid, with alzhiemers and glaucoma.
      We all had so much going on inside of us, we were 18 for fucks sake. We were figuring out who we were, or at least who we wanted to become.
      That’s awesome that you continued to go to gatherings, I haven’t been since, but after walking through all of that thick nostalgia, I’m started to ponder the 4th of July…

    • I was looking at pictures of the beach north of San Francisco where we hung out for the day with those two guys we picked up hitchhiking. What a great day that was!

  7. tracy, most people just read about the things you have expierenced and never really understand the way things were. this is going to sound strange but you should feel
    honored and blessed. I loved the 60’s. I think that was the only time when people really came together and were egar to share and be kind to one another.
    luv u

  8. Really enjoyed reading that post. Kind of reminded me of The Search for the Diceman by Luke Rhinehart. Made me want to be there!

    Looking forward to your next blog post.



  9. Oh man, I love gatherings and festivals *sigh* Yes, I’m a hippie. I’m a Brit, although I live in SA now, and every year without fail I get an almost physically palpable yearn to go to Glastonbury Festival, which I used to attend every year from the ages of about 16 – 34. Loved the pics, brought back many happy memories to me too and I didn’t go to THIS one 🙂 Thank you, great piece.

  10. Tracy, Tracy, Tracy,
    You are really an incredible, versatile writer. This is a very enjoyable read that makes me feel good.
    I’ve hiked in that area although not during such a wonderful time. I came from the same roots as you did with similar experiences and enlightenment; I just experienced those events 15 years earlier in the late 70’s. By the time that particular gathering occurred I was hip-deep in kids and mortgages and such. It warms my heart to know that the tradition was/is carried on by genuine people like you and your gang.
    Thank you,

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